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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Renewable Energy Versus Wildlife Conservation

Migrating waterfowl at feeding grounds via Pembina Institute

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

The argument goes something like this:

Real environmentalist: “We should not allow the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil biodiesel!”

Apologist: “In fact by displacing fossil fuels, palm oil biodiesel is helping orangutans, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet! Orangutans are at serious risk due to climate change. Some primate species are forecast to to lose more than 95% of their current ranges!”

(1) From an article in Treehugger about wind farm impact on birds:
…. in fact by displacing fossil fuels they are helping birds, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet. … the bald eagle and eight state birds …are at serious risk due to climate change. …some species are forecast to lose more than 95% of their current ranges.
Another real world analogy to wind farms, the Elwa river dam, was recently removed in an attempt to restore an extinct salmon migration.  Using the reasoning presented in the Treehugger article about wind farms, what’s the point in restoring a salmon run if climate change will eventually destroy it? Right? The dam should be rebuilt so it can once again produce renewable energy.

There are a few missing links in this argument’s logic chain. Scientists recognized the sixth extinction event long before they did climate change.  Producing low carbon energy with that rebuilt dam would immediately and directly cause the extinction of that salmon run. Whereas, removing the dam (not producing low carbon energy at that location) will help assure there will be salmon left to save from the ravages of climate change, assuming humanity can avert climate change. In other words, find another place to generate low carbon energy.

Analogously, usurping raptor hunting grounds(2) and intersecting major migration routs with giant blenders to produce low carbon energy is not going to help eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats survive climate change. They are going to need all the help we can give them (with or without climate change) in addition to attempting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Conservation and development of renewable energy have to be done in parallel with priority given to conservation. The extinction event has been accelerating even in the absence of climate change, which of course will make it even worse.

One could argue that humanity should not be building new dams at all in places like the Amazon basin, and that wind farms should be relegated to offshore locations far from raptor and bat hunting grounds and major migration routes. And why are we destroying intact dessert tortoise habitat for solar thermal installations? We can’t find a place without threatened tortoise habitat?

The author’s strategy is to use close-up photos of naughty kitties to convince “bird lovers” to stop hassling utilities that own wind farms and to instead focus their ire on …cats:
“But bird lovers need to go against the real enemies rather than spending precious energy fighting one of the main tools that we have to clean up our power grid and have a greener world.”
The label “bird lover” makes an easy target because it conjures up images of retirees in their birding gear gathering into flocks of their own to count and categorize the birds they see (Greater Peewee, Spectacled Tyrant, Handsome Fruiteater …to name a few). In reality, state and federal governments, environmental groups, and their attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms.

Interestingly enough, the author’s attempt to deflect attention away from wind farms to cats appears to have worked, at least on his Treehugger readership. Drop into the comment field below his article to participate in the hate festival. Several comments had to be deleted. I did find one salient comment:
Wind turbines are creating mortality on birds that aren’t at risk by cats or large buildings. The bigger birds (raptors, owls, etc.) are long-lived and have low reproductive rates. They’re like the grizzly bears of the bird world. They have no way to compensate for excessive mortality.
If cats are the real problem maybe Treehugger should spend a little more time writing about cats, a little less time trying to trivialize the  damage done by wind farms.
More from the article:
Many people have this obsession with wind turbines killing birds, probably because it’s a really great story.
Riiight. I seriously doubt that state and federal governments, environmental groups and the attendant armies of concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists around the world are working to minimize the impacts of wind farms ” ….because it’s a really great story.”

Male Swainson's hawk
Photo of Male Swainson’s hawk in front of the turbine that eventually killed it

The photo above and the following excerpts are from an article by concerned scientists, naturalists, and conservationists from my local zoo:
With such keen eyesight, why do hawks not see these giant fans in their workaday flight paths?  Gretchen explains that “hawks are predators. After a long migration, their job here is straightforward, driven by instinct: build nests, find food and defend territory in the home range.” Making sense of strange, new human-built hazards is a secondary priority. “As Jim sees it, imagine waking up every day with hungry kids to feed. A huge, dangerous blender is lodged between your bedroom and your kitchen. Your eyes scan the ground, locking in on food, so even with all your flying skills, eventually you’re going to bump into it.”

Through focal observations, the keepers collect data on specific birds’ range behaviors, recording flight type, duration of interaction with or near turbines, and wind and turbine speed. They seek to discern patterns and trends holistically on two levels. The landscape level looks at whether populations are displaced by the turbines, abandoning their breeding grounds for safer but often less suitable habitats. The interaction level looks at whether the hawks become habituated to the turbines, flying near or through them.  In nesting territories, the mean rate at which hawks encounter turbine collision zones, a 400-foot radius around the blades, is once every 76 minutes.
From the Treehugger article:
As a meme, it really strikes the imagination because wind turbines are this green thing, right, so killing birds is antithetical to what they’re supposed to be doing.
Really? Killing hawks, owls, bats etc isn’t antithetical to what wind farms are supposed to be doing?
But if the goal is to save birds, we have to look at the actual facts on the ground and not just at whatever story makes for the catchiest headline.
Following is the headline to the Treehugger article: Wind turbines kill around 300,000 birds annually, house cats around 3,000,000,000

And if you just blew coffee (or whatever you were drinking) out your nose, I don’t blame you. Several commenters mentioned that based on the headline they also thought the article was about wind turbines killing 3 billion cats annually.

After having said all the above, the author concludes with a throw-away comment as a hedge against the unlikely event that somebody would call him out: “This doesn’t mean that wind power operators should stop doing what they can to protect birds. Wind farms should be properly sited and everything should be done to mitigate any risks.”

The Treehugger article was based on one found in the respected peer reviewed science journal …USA Today.  I had to dig around on the internet to find the actual link to the peer reviewed study that the USA Today and subsequent Treehugger articles were based on. The photo below was found on the website that linked back to the study.

Halved Golden Eagle via

The study is about the impact on small songbirds. It isn’t about eagles, hawks, owls, condors, vultures, herons, waterfowl, whooping cranes or bats, which cats don’t eat, although some eagles, hawks, and owls do eat cats. See the photo below of a great horned owl that landed on a power line with the cat it had caught. Both were subsequently electrocuted. The irony. Could only have been worse had they been struck by a wind turbine.

Electrocuted Great Horned Owl with Cat Prey via Imgur

I read the study, which was very obviously biased but I suspect that its conclusion is largely correct: wind farms kill a relatively small percentage of the total song bird population. The authors showed their bias by repeatedly comparing the numbers of small birds killed by turbines to the numbers killed by other things, like cats, which were not part of the study. There was no need to repeatedly do that comparison other than  to bias the article intent–to trivialize song bird deaths. It’s a moot argument. Song birds are not the big problem.

To convince myself that the study conclusion was reasonable I made a simple spreadsheet that calculated the number of song bird deaths as a percentage of the power supplied to the grid by wind. The total percentage of song birds killed struck me as relatively small no matter what percentage I chose for wind energy all the way to 100 percent (a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab suggests that a maximum of about 12 percent of total energy supply can be from wind by 2050).

An extreme example just to make a point about renewable energy would be the conversion of the entire Amazon rain forest into corn, soy, and sugarcane fields to make biofuel and tree farms to fuel power plants in place of coal. That act would be one step forward (displacement of fossil fuels) and a thousand steps backward (utter destruction of the very biodiversity we are trying to protect from climate change).

Climate change is expected to wreak havoc on the planet’s already rapidly disappearing biodiversity (wildlife) because it will further shrink/degrade what remains of the ecosystems wildlife needs to avoid extinction. Ergo, an energy scheme that reduces carbon emissions but also kills wildlife and degrades wildlife habitat is going to worsen the impact of climate change on the natural world (one step forward, some number of steps backward).

(1) If you want to read a more useful article about efforts to reduce the damage done by some wind farms I would suggest this one: For the Birds and the Bats: Eight Ways Wind Power Companies are Trying to Prevent Deadly Collisions  by Roger Drouin writing for Grist.

(2) If you look at the background of the wind turbine photo  chosen for the Treehugger article you will see degraded habitat; roads leading to wind turbines bulldozed through a hunting ground for raptors which soar/soared on wind currents while hunting rodents and ground nesting birds in the rocks below.

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